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Changing the World: Classes

posted Thursday, June 21st 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering AdviceGame DesignThird Edition

Last week in “Changing the World” I wrote about changing the world’s races. This week, I’m going to look at character classes, and what changes might be made if you’re planning fresh start.

There’s less shuffle-room with character classes in D&D than there is with races. In a standard dungeon-crawl game, a balanced party requires a warrior (barbarian/fighter/paladin), a priest (cleric/druid), an arcanist (sorcerer/wizard) and a rogue. You’re weak without that combination, or something radically different. Let’s focus, then, on the existing classes, how they can be spiced up thematically, how their abilities might be varied and how they interact with the races from the previous article.

  • Barbarian: The raging berserker is both an excellent image and a mechanically solid class. It’s hard to improve upon such a well-built character class, but some variants exist in the November 2006 issue of Dragon Magazine, #349 – “Law and Chaos”. Such variants might differentiate different tribes or clans or even individuals. Thematically, there’s a split between the instinctual barbarian and the civilized fighter, and so we might imagine that as fighters are the elite soldiers of a knight’s army, barbarians are the elites of armies of the unconquered plains. Perhaps a warrior strong enough to challenge his chieftain to a duel for leadership but not strong enough to defeat him is exiled from the clan, leading to a number of berserkers forced to make a living in civilized lands. Inspiration can be taken from Viking mythology and the legends of Cúchulainn.
  • Bard: A travelling storyteller in civilized lands is the general idea of a bard, but the need for oral storytelling is greater among peoples without written culture. Since the bard’s primary ability is to rouse warriors to heroic deeds in battle, they’ll fit much better among our barbarian tribes, who battle monsters for land and glory at the edge of settled land. The dwarves, surprisingly, have their own bards, although with heavier armour and a focus on heroic speeches rather than song, they differ so significantly in their approach as to be almost unrecognisable as bards.
  • Cleric: In any homemade setting there is the possibility to muck around with the deities a lot. The civilized peoples, whose successful and militaristic culture bears many resemblances to ancient Rome, is bolstered at war by a strong, unified and militaristic church – think along the lines of Warhammer 40k‘s space marines, minus the power armor. Clerics lead faithful armies of soldiers, on whose religious morale and disciplined training the empire has long stood. Two major mechanical changes take place here. Firstly, not all clerics have Turn Undead; instead, the god or gods of your world grant each cleric a unique gift – you can take ideas Dragon #353′s article “No Turning”, invent your own, or grant a bonus feat selection. Secondly, the domains available are limited by church teachings to Death, Destruction, Law, Fire, Good, Healing, Knowledge, Law, Protection, Strength and War. In practice, players can choose any domains they wish, but there’s a twist – posessing any other domain is considered heresy.
  • Druid: If the barbarians are the fighters of the so-called primitive tribes, then druids are their clerics. Religion is taken much less seriously by the tribal warriors, who revere the beauty and strength of all things in nature, and although they don’t strictly worship their ancestors, they take their ancestry quite seriously. Druids don’t lead their people into battle, but are revered as shamans, important connections to the spirit world. Druids consider all living things to have spirits, and all of their abilities are invoked by their connection to the spirit world. These shamans are very important to the success of their tribes. Druid is another class I consider very well developed, so much so that I can’t think of any mechanical changes required; although again, character variants are an option. One idea is gradual physical changes as with geomancer drift, perhaps trading lower-level spell slots for minor abilities.
  • Fighter: As above, the fighter is the epitome of the well-equipped, well-trained and religiously brave imperial soldier. Mechanically, the fighter is in dire need of some polishing up. Heavy armour is not the boon it once was, and in comparison to the barbarian’s +8 Strength/Constitution rage six times a day and damage reduction 5, the fighter’s eleven feats are a bit pants. Given his faithful bent in this situation we might grant the fighter more abilities in his empty levels (perhaps stemming from his supreme discipline) or better, fighter-exclusive feats to keep them a desirable class at high level. Consider as an alternative the Arcana Evolved ‘warmain’ class.
  • Monk: It’s tricky to find a use for a mystical, unarmed fighter – they don’t standardly fit into mediaeval fantasy and it’s hard to imagine what practical use the ‘lawful’ empire would have for unarmed combatants. The easiest answer is a distributed guild of religious spies and assassins. The monks with their almost Matrix-like abilities have a very specific purpose in society. Monk class is well-built despite being weaker in melee, but we can solidify their role by giving them Bluff, Intimidate and Disguise as class skills in place of Knowledge (arcana) and Perform. We might also trade out Wholeness of Body for disguise self as a spell-like ability, and remember that diamond body allows the monk unrestricted poison use.
  • Paladin: Straightforwardly, the paladin actually has less prestige than the cleric due to weaker spellcasting per combat prowess. However, the special gifts bestowed upon them are not overlooked, and paladins are either singled out for special missions or are employed as lieutennants and charismatic squad leaders to lead the most difficult battles on the front against powerful evil – ogre armies and the creatures that bubble up from the underworld. The dwarves have more paladins than they do clerics, while those half-elves and kenku blessed with this ability usually take the paladin of freedom and favoured enemy benefit, leading them to different specialties than the human paladins whose names are widely known.
  • Ranger: Utterly incompatible with the discipline of imperial armies or the broad social ties that fit the barbarian clans of the north, rangers are naturally hermits, each with his own story. Surviving alone, they are almost as tough as the most disciplined imperial warriors. Outcasts of any race can become rangers, although they are surprisingly common among the kenku. Kenku born and raised in the human cities have adapted this to become urban rangers, talented crimefighters and bounty hunters and who are hired begrudgingly by the empire.
  • Rogue: Any city has its thieves. Rogues are not spies or ninjas; whatever name they like to give themselves, they are expert criminals, plain and simple. Thieves like this may have altruistic motives, or may stoop so low as to work in fiendish guilds as assassins-for-hire, while others may have given up the criminal life to become locksmiths or even defected to work for the law enforcement as informers. Kenku have a bad reputation as rogues. Statistically, I consider this class good enough that it requires no modification.
  • Sorcerer: For whatever reason, sorcery is feared in this land – think mutants in X-Men. Divine power comes from pious faith, but who knows what vile dragon or fiend a sorcerer has made a pact with to gain his power? These fears are often well-placed. Sorcery is not merely in the blood in this world, although some measure of magical power can be inherited – any player character can become a sorcerer by making a binding pact with a powerful being. Dragons are the source of the usual Player’s Handbook magic, but there exist other powerful beings – demons, spirits and even false gods. Being a sorcerer is heresy, and the empire is not happy for powerful citizens to divide their loyalties between their country and some being. As a variant, dragon sorcerers gain the Eschew Materials feat for free, since carrying spell components would give them away. Kenku, disrespected by mage guilds, most often become sorcerers.
  • Wizard: Arcane magic, it is said, was taught to the elves by dragons and from there to men, who quickly developed it for use at war. However, its power is feared, and it is strictly controlled by the empire to ensure that it does not fall into the wrong hands. Mages must pass constant security checks and maintain membership in an approved guild of magic. The empire is aware that every guild hides some sorcerers, but the guilds are sufficiently powerful and needed that the emperor will not move upon them. As elitists, mage guilds are full of politicking and primarily human, although ironborn and a increasing numbers of other races are joining all but the oldest and pickiest guilds. Wizards are the most variant of classes, since each guild has its own secrets and unique methods which it closely guards from other guilds. There are almost limitless variants feasible. A guild might specialise in one or more schools of magic, require members to take a familiar, give a staff rather than a wizard, institute any number of specialist wizard variants, or encourage members to join a prestige class like archmage or loremaster.

The interactions between the classes lend a more interesting flavour to the world than simply assuming that all characters and NPCs are equally prevalent all over the world. In this way, players can choose the kind of game they want to play by their character options. For example, a group with a barbarian and a druid will fit a campaign into Braveheart-like clans or viking raiders, clerics and fighters will fit a divinely oriented campaign taking orderly missions from a powerful emperor, and sorcerers and clerics of heretical domains leads to an interesting game of intrigue as players struggle to uncover heretics without being uncovered themselves in a city where anyone could be an imperial spy.

Next week, I’ll delve into the prestige classes and psionics, and how these might fit into this broad setting of ours.

Comments

  1. Borka

    September 24th, 2007

    On Monks:

    In a highly lawful imperialist society, I argue monks can serve a purpose outside of wetworks. A closed community can pay special attention to the gods, showing extreme devotion to offset the perhaps more lackadaisical approach of some laymen.

    Monks can also act sort of like priests, administering to the sick or beleaguered, making sure one’s faith does not waiver in the face of despair, full of advice and showing an example of a simple, devoted life a citizen can aspire to. The militaristic aspect of a monks training can have been started to defend the faithful and the monastery, maybe a way of life predating the empire when communities were centered around the places of worship.

    This would operate in contrast to your description of the clerics in this world, which do indeed sound like they could purge the xenos, the mutant, and the heretic. The cleric represents maybe the military industrial complex that evolved with imperial expansion.

  2. Quicksilver

    August 25th, 2009

    Holy crap. If you’re running a game with celtic/nordic stuff in it, you have to read that cuchulain link he has under the barbarian writeup. Its amazingly stylish, and so very very celtic!

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